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Monday, September 3, 2007

Card of the Week 9/3

Happy Labor Day everybody! Or the last couple of hours of Labor Day at least. I got to a late start on this post since I was too busy not working. I was at the theater munching popcorn and watching Mr. Bean's Holiday to be specific. My favorite part was when Mr. Bean acted silly and made a funny face. Oops, sorry, should have put a spoiler notice there.

Labor Day wasn't originally a three-day weekend to recharge and get one last trip to the beach in before the Christmas displays started popping up in department stores. It started in 1882 as a parade organized by a labor organization to promote their cause and provide a festival for the entertainment of the working class. Parades continued throughout the decade, with some rival union activists promoting May 1st for the holiday. After the 1886 general strike and subsequent Haymarket Riot, President Cleveland chose the September date for the American observance of Labor Day as he did not want a holiday commemorating a victory for the socialist movement.

Labor issues have dominated the game of baseball since the very beginning. In order to strengthen their control on the players (and in turn their salaries) the ownership group of the National League agreed in 1879 to a secret Reserve Clause allowing each team to protect 5 of their star players from receiving contract offers from the other clubs in the league. As the number of players reserved per team grew the secret soon got out. By the time Grover Cleveland established the Labor Day holiday, the reserve clause was actually being written into each player's contract, thereby binding him to that team for the duration of his career.

Despite player protests, the strong ownership group kept this system in place for almost a century despite frequent attempts to break it. Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward unsuccessfully tried to start an upstart player's league twice with the Players League and the Federal League. Washington catcher John Henry was drummed out of baseball after defying American League president Ban Johnson and trying to organize a player's strike in 1917. Another blow was dealt by Oliver Wendell Holmes ruling for the owners in the Federal League's lawsuit against Major league baseball. Branch Rickey's farm system exacerbated the problem by increasing the number of players under contract per team. Now even minor leaguers were being punished for attempting to jump teams in order to have a better chance of playing in the majors.

Curt Flood was signed in 1956 by the Cincinnati Redlegs in 1956, but only played 8 games with them before being traded to the Cardinals after the 1957 season. Labor issues did not weigh on Curt's mind as much as racial issues in his early career. Baseball was not completely integrated when Curt made his debut, and Flood received his share of verbal abuse from the fans. This hurt him deeply and he later remarked in his autobiography, "I'm pleased God made my skin black. I wish He had made it thicker." Curt thrived in St. Louis and by the mid 60's was one of the finest center fielders in baseball. He was selected to three All Star teams, won gold gloves every year from 1963 to 1969 and won two championships with the Cardinals in 1964 and 1967.

Despite these accomplishments, the Cardinals traded Flood to the Phillies on October 7th, 1969. Upset at being traded to a city where he did not wish to play and resentful of being treated as a piece of property, Curt refused to report to the Phillies and petitioned commissioner Bowie Kuhn to grant him his free agency so he could negotiate with other teams. Predictably, Kuhn refused citing the reserve clause. Flood then filed suit against Major League Baseball stating the reserve clause violated the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution and was tantamount to slavery. The very idea shocked the baseball community and Flood was vilified in the press. The lawsuit was eventually ruled once again in favor of the owners, by use of a stare decisis decision that basically deferred to the original flawed decision of 1922.

Flood steadfastly refused to report to the Phillies, forfeiting a $100,000 salary in the process. Philadelphia finally gave up and shipped him to the Washington Senators after Flood sat out the entire 1970 season. However, the fight had taken its toll on Curt by this time and he only played thirteen games for Washington. When he should have been enjoying the prime of his career at 33 years of age, he never played another game. While Flood would never reap the benefits of his stand, the lawsuit and subsequent national focus upon the reserve clause was a catalyst to its eventual downfall with the Seitz Decision. Flood did return to baseball, first as a broadcaster, then as the commissioner of the Senior League. Curt died of throat cancer in 1997, but his legacy lives on in The Curt Flood Act which revoked Baseball's antitrust exemption in labor matters. Once a pariah, Curt Flood is now seen as a ground breaker and a hero, and his name is synonymous with someone willing to risk their career to make a stand. This week's Card of the Week is Curt's 1971 Topps card which features his statistics line for that lost 1970 season.

1 comment:

Dean said...

It still amazes that Curt's career was over at 33. It was like he was black balled by the owners, but I can't imagine why the Senators wouldsigned him and not played him. He must have looked pretty bad in camp.